George Steinbrenner, the majority owner of the New York Yankees, looks like any other millionaire in America. White skin. Stocky build. Perfectly-parted gray hair. Clear blue eyes. I watch him on ESPN. He stands behind a bank of microphones -- double Windsor knot in his tie, capped teeth sparkling. His greedy blue eyes focus on the cameras and reporters, savoring every millisecond of publicity. I lean forward on the couch, curl my toes and bite my lip. This is what I hear when Steinbrenner speaks: Baseball is show business. Winning World Series Championships is everything. My players have the highest salaries in Major League Baseball. I demand results. Wins. Revenue. Glory.
Or something to that effect.
When ESPN cuts to a commercial, I stand up and punch the wall. I call Steinbrenner a lowlife, a money-grubber, an attention-seeker. If Libby, my girlfriend, wasn't around, I'd spit on my own floor.
“No respect for the game,” I say, examining the black bruises forming on my knuckle. Libby stares up at me with big brown eyes. Our dog, Bentley, sits on her lap. He's wearing a tuxedo of black and white fur. Same colors the New York Yankees wear.
“Psycho,” Libby says, and changes the channel. “Baseball is boring. Calm down.”
I get ice from the kitchen and sit back down on the couch. I mutter something about assassinating George Steinbrenner and maintaining the integrity of America's Pastime. Libby rubs Bentley's white belly, talks to him like a baby. She asks me what I want for dinner. The icepack burns my hand, it's so cold.
“You don't understand,” I say. “It's a sad day when a man realizes he'll never again put on a baseball uniform.” Blank stares from dog and human. Libby kisses the dog's cold, black nose.
“Bentley, your Daddy is crazy.”
1987: I was eight years old. Barely four feet tall. Pale white skin, thick black hair. I wasn't the brightest student in class. Or the friendliest. The only time I spoke was when Principal Gale, a pasty-faced Dodgers fan with ink-black hair, asked me a question about baseball. Q: Who holds the all-time home run record? A: Hank Aaron, 755. Q: What pitcher has the most career wins? A: Cy Young, 511. Q: Why did you call Mrs. Reese, your homeroom teacher, a bitch? A: She said I was deranged.
During recess one day, Nathaniel Hairston, a pot-bellied black kid who kept an afro pick in his hair, slammed my head against a tree root. When I stood up, eyes filled with hot tears, temples pounding, the whole class was watching. His buddies egged him on. Nathaniel moved towards me, poked me in the chest. He smelled like cologne and B.O.
“Faggot,” he said.
I made a fist. My stomach bubbled hot with rage. His buddies cheered.
“Queer.” He pushed me against an oak tree. “Do something, white boy.”
Seemed like everyone was looking at me. Laughing. Even the girls. My cheeks burned. I crunched my knuckles so hard I thought I broke one. I stepped closer to my enemy, ready to throw a punch, but Mrs. Reese, my nemesis, stepped between us.
“Do you boys have anything to say before I take you to the Principal's office for punishment?”
Nathaniel grinned, grabbed the afro pick from his hair.
I think I threatened to kill him. One day.
1985: I had what Dr. Roach, my neurologist, called skeletal headaches. He gave me tiny blue pills to take. They made me loopy, angry, and irritable. I saw horrible images in my head. Dad lying face down in an alley, red, red blood flowing from a stab wound to the chest. My sister dressed up as a hooker, leather boots, black lipstick, fat men pawing at her flesh. Mom sitting on a park bench in dirty rags, an arm and leg missing, empty bottles of liquor all around her.
Back then, I held my breath a lot. Cried myself to sleep. Started fistfights with my older sister, Kathryn. She had sharp elbows and lots of friends. She won first place in gymnastics competitions. I never finished better than third. Every Saturday morning I begged her to come watch cartoons with me in the living room. A monster lived in there. I was sure of it.
Baseball kept my anger in check. Baseball was all I cared about. I learned how to turn a double play long before I could read or write. I learned how to hit my Dad's un-hittable knuckleball long before I could recite my multiplication tables. I didn't bathe regularly (or properly) or pour my own bowl of Wheaties in the morning, but I could catch a pop fly or tell you the name of every player on the Atlanta Braves roster.
1989: I was ten with skinny arms. I made the Little League All-Star team. I played shortstop. You couldn't get one by me if your life depended on it. Even now, almost two decades later, I can remember standing in the hole at shortstop, smacking the web of my glove, praying that someone would hit one up the middle and I'd have to dive to make the play. God damn, I loved getting dirt on my uniform. I loved how natural it felt to dig my heels into the batter's box, stare down the pitcher. I loved the way my stomach dropped and my balls tingled whenever I hit a pitch on the sweet spot of the bat. Sweet Thunder. That's what the pros call catching one on the fat part of the bat. Sweet Thunder. Nothing you can do will ever make you feel as powerful as bashing the hell out of a baseball. Not making your girlfriend come. Not snorting cocaine. Not running your car up to 100 mph. Not inching your toes up to the edge of a mountain. Nothing. Nada.
But sometimes it rained. No baseball in the rain. In the lightning and thunder.
A memory: I was sitting in front of the bay window in our house, polyester uniform on, watching the blue-black clouds rolling across the sky when the telephone rang.
“Sorry, kiddo. Looks like the game is a washout.”
“I'll be home soon. I'll take you to that indoor batting cage.”
I slammed the phone down, ran into the living room. The faux wood paneling made the place look like a ski lodge. I slammed my head against the wall until I fell down dizzy. When I heard the rain beating against the roof, I called Mother Nature a dirty, dirty whore. I didn't even know what a whore was.
On January 4, 1973, George Steinbrenner, the 42-year old CEO of the American Shipbuilding Company based out of Cleveland, put together the deal of the century. Along with some other so-called “absentee” partners, Steinbrenner bought the New York Yankees franchise for $10 million in cash, of which, allegedly, only $833,333.33 was Steinbrenner's. Shortly after the sale went through and the new owner informed fans, reporters, and anyone else who would listen that he had no intention of trying to run a ball club, Steinbrenner started consolidating power amongst the other owners and making demands.
All Yankees must keep their hair short.
Mustaches and beards must be trimmed
Instead of drafting talented young ballplayers and developing their skills in the Minor Leagues, we're gonna go out and buy the best Free Agents on the market because baseball is show business.
Sometimes, I like to fantasize about having a conversation with George Steinbrenner, “The Boss.” I picture us in the owner's suite at Yankee Stadium. Me in my ripped jeans and pink T-shirt that says, “My son is a paratrooper.” Steinbrenner in a black blazer and yellow turtleneck, hands interlaced behind his head, Cuban cigar dangling from his lips. In my daydream, I lean back in a chair opposite his desk, prop my feet up on the oak, and tell him he doesn't know shit about baseball.
Me: You don't know shit about baseball.
The Boss: I've won six World Series Championships. Nine straight division titles. From 1973-2001, the Yankees winning percentage is .553. I made this team one of the most profitable franchises in professional sports history. I know enough.
Me: I'll bet you've never tried to hit a ninety-five mile an hour fastball, or caught a heat-sinking line-drive in the outfield, or executed a suicide squeeze.
The Boss: Google me on the Internet. Read about me. I've been successful at everything I've ever done. Track star at Williams College. Shipbuilding with my old man. I owned thoroughbred racehorses. Check the trophy case out in the hallway. I made this team a winner again.
Me: You buy and sell players. You cheat. You coerce. Mr. Steinbrenner, you've been too successful. Baseball is a game of failure --
Steinbrenner: Failure? Are you stoned, son?
Me: I don't do that anymore, no. Failure, yes. Hitting a baseball is, scientifically speaking, the most difficult task in all of sports. A 90 mph pitch takes about 0.40 seconds to reach a batter. Less than .20 seconds is needed to see the pitch and decide whether to swing the bat or not. Less than .15 seconds is needed to actually swing, and if the batter overestimates the speed of the pitch by more than 3 mph (or .013 seconds), he will hit a foul ball or a pop up. He will fail.
The Boss: Yankees hit home runs. Put up numbers. Put asses in the seats.
Me: You're upsetting me. I don't think you even like baseball.
The Boss: Baseball is about winning. Pure and simple.
Me: You must respect the game. It's hard. It should be. Baseball is a grind, not for those interested in instant gratification. Go smell the grass in the outfield. Run your fingers along the barrel of a Louisville Slugger. Touch the foul pole in right field. Ask your players and they'll tell you.
The Boss: I win. I don't give a damn about that philosophical stuff you're spouting. What have you ever done with your life?
That's about the time I come to, look around my crappy apartment and all my books -- I've been writing for years, but have never written a book and probably never will -- and my heart begins to pound. That's about the time I have a Jack and Coke and try to get the image of Steinbrenner's pudgy face out of my head.
1992: Red pimples covered my face. White puss seethed beneath the surface, ready to explode. Greasy whiskers sprouted on my chin. My voice changed. My legs ached, but I still hovered around five feet tall. I spent a lot of time brooding. Staring at walls. Smoking Camel Lights and pot. Wondering about death. I was too embarrassed to face a girl, too ashamed to even masturbate.
At Bishop McGuiness High School, I tried out for the Varsity baseball team and made it. As a freshman. After the coach read off the Cut List, he pulled me inside the dugout to talk. He wore a blue jogging suit. He was stout, had a gray comb-over that I'm sure embarrassed his wife. We sat down on the bench, and I watched the other players pack up their gear. The sky was gray. There was a nip in the air that made the skinny pine trees bend and sway.
“Max, I hear you're a good tennis player, too.”
“I'm a shortstop. I'm a lead-off man with speed.”
“You wanna play in college?”
He took my black baseball mitt, spit in the webbing and rubbed it in.
“Listen,” he said. “I can't start you at shortstop. You're too small. I don't think you'll ever start for this team.”
I stared at his jaw. My heart raced. I wanted to feel my fingers break as they connected with that jowly chin.
“Max, I'm gonna be honest. I think you should stick to tennis.”
I can't remember what I said next, but I didn't play a single inning that season. I watched the game I love from the far side of the bench, cap pulled down low.
My brief tenure at Bishop McGuiness Catholic was tumultuous. I hated my classmates. They were too smart. Too white. Too rich. Too pretty. They taught me how to cuss, how to drink whiskey.
The teachers at Bishop were excellent. Committed to education, to preparing students for college and a career.
I had a French teacher who I believe was from Canada. Forgot her name. Remember she had a horse face, cobalt-blue eyes, and a bad perm. She insisted that we speak French in class. Only French. Students liked her. She smiled a lot. She had buck teeth. I liked her. Until the day she sprung a pop quiz on us. She sat down on her desk, told us to take out a sheet of paper. I squirmed in my seat.
“Monsieur, Max. C'est probleme?” (My French sucks. She said something like that. In French.)
I shrugged, pretended to be hard of hearing. She repeated it. In French. I shrugged again.
“Max,” she finally said in English, “You're holding up the rest of the class.”
My shirt collar strangled me. Battery acid churned in my stomach. I ground my teeth.
“Bitch,” I muttered under my breath. But she heard me.
“Stand up, young man. Stand up, right now.”
She led me to the principal's office, shaking her head the whole way, muttering in French and English. Mr. Repast, the principal, locked me in a supply closet until my Mom could come and get me. I pounded on the door, sobbed uncontrollably, threw staplers at the walls. I yelled out every cuss word I could think of. I prayed, even though I didn't believe.
Steinbrenner's list of offenses against baseball is long. Here are some of the highlights you'll find by typing in George Steinbrenner on wikipedia.com.
April 5, 1974: Steinbrenner was convicted on 14 criminal counts and fined $15,000 for making an illegal contribution to Nixon's campaign for re-election. On November 27, Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, banned Steinbrenner from the league for two years. Later, President Ronald Reagan, another Republican, pardoned Steinbrenner's wrong-doing.
1981 World Series: Yankees just lost Game 3 to the L.A. Dodgers, and Steinbrenner called a press conference in his hotel room. He was wearing a cast, said he got into a fight with some Dodgers in the hotel elevator. The press believed he staged the whole thing for publicity.
July 30, 1990: Steinbrenner is banned from baseball for life by Commissioner Fay Vincent after the Yankees owner paid Howie Spira, a low-level gambler, $40,000 for dirt on former Yankee's outfielder, Dave Winfield. Winfield, who is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame, was suing Steinbrenner for $300,000, money Steinbrenner owed Winfield's charitable foundation. Unfortunately, Steinbrenner was reinstated in 1993.
Aside from breaking the law and neglecting to contribute to charities, Steinbrenner changed managers twenty times in his first twenty-three seasons, including firing Billy Martin on five separate occasions. In the past thirty years, there have been 11 general managers for the New York Yankees.
1997: College. A tennis scholarship to the University of North Carolina-Asheville. My parents drove me through the Blue Ridge Mountains to campus two days before my 18th birthday. My bags were packed. Clothes. Tennis gear. Dope. Marlboro Lights. Acne cream.
The three of us set my suitcases down in a tiny cell of a dorm room with one window, a twin bed, and a desk made for a dwarf. Mom removed her sunglasses, sat down on the bed. She rubbed her arthritic ankles. All six-foot-four of my Dad hovered in the doorway.
“You all set?” Dad asked. Mom struggled to her feet, sweat trickling down her mottled cheeks. Her eyes were the color of tobacco. She wasn't going to cry like when we took my sister to college. My sister. Kathryn. The responsible one.
“I love you,” Mom said, and the two of them disappeared. Even then I knew what a brat I was. Drinking everyday. Skipping school. Dropping LSD. Filling our house with my adolescent, pimple-popping rage.
I played one semester before I got kicked off the tennis team and lost my scholarship. On the court, the racket felt foreign in my hands, not like a baseball bat. Swinging at a tennis ball is an exercise in control. You must use the right amount of spin to keep the ball in the court. You must always keep your wrist firm. You must follow through and keep your feet moving and turn with your hips and always recover, back to the center of court, ready for the next shot.
When I wasn't taking bong hits or hitting golf balls at the library windows, I practiced tennis. Coach Silverstein yelled at me for smoking, for double-faulting my serve, for skipping class, for throwing my broken rackets on top of Mills Hall where all the students and faculty could see them from the sidewalk.
No one ever had to teach me how to hit a baseball. I just grabbed a bat and swung.
I'm twenty-eight years old now. Skinny. Grumpy. Sensible. I control my anger with Jack Daniels and chocolate milk. And Red Sox baseball on TV. I have a spork tattooed on my arm. I have no valuable possessions other than books, This is Spinal Tap on DVD, a second-hand laptop, and a Kenneth Cole watch Libby bought me for my twenty-fourth birthday.
I work in a bookstore. A corporate bookstore. Do it purely to continue living indoors and eating occasionally. I wear a black apron and a white name tag. I fake smile. Say thank you, have a nice day. I'm sorry, we're all out of that particular title. I say this a lot. Hundreds of times a day. I sell discount cards that provide the customer with 10% off anything they purchase in our stores for an entire year. An entire year. That's how long I've had this job.
On Sunday afternoons, I stand behind the cash register and stare out at all the rows of books. I watch the church crowds come and go. Men in suits. Women in dresses and pearls. Little girls stomping around my store in Mary Janes and pigtails. Little boys pulling magazines off the rack, playing hide and seek in the Erotica Section. My scalp itches when the Dad saunters over and chucks his Am Ex card on the counter. I hate this. Why not simply hand me the card? I use my pen as a hockey stick, slap-shot it back across the counter.
“You can just swipe it through the machine there,” I say. “Did you have a discount card with us?”
Gruff. Definitive. Rude. My face burns. Why do I have to sell things? It's undignified. I graduated from college. I've never been convicted of a felony.
“Did you want to get a discount card today? They're $15 and will save you 10% for an --”
Gruff. Definitive. Rude. As his look-a-like son messes up the Bargain Tables I so carefully arranged, I stare at Daddy's erratic hairline. I stare at his jaw. Under my breath, I call him a pointy-nosed, pooch-bellied, Reageanite. I dream about punching him in his fat face. He's just another suit with money. Like Steinbrenner. Like the silver-haired cowboy in charge of America.
The dad slides his card and I hand him his receipt. He takes his bag of James Patterson and Clifford, the Big Red Dog.
“Thanks.” He squints at my name tag. “Max. Thank you for helping me find those books. You were very patient with me.”
“Not a problem,” I say, “Not a problem.”
Were I to assassinate George Steinbrenner -- and I'm not saying I ever would, certainly not -- here's how I would do it.
First, I'd pack for the journey to New York. Valium. The flask Libby bought me with George W's face on the side. Elmore Leonard novels. Pen and paper. A change of underwear. A toothbrush and a Louisville Slugger.
On the train ride -- I'm deathly afraid of planes: turbulence, stewardesses, salted peanuts -- I'd sit by the window, hopefully by myself, but if other passengers sat down and made mindless chit-chat, I'd try to oblige. Lovely weather we're having. My first trip to the Big Apple. No, I'm not married. My girlfriend assures me things will change if ever we tie the knot. Plus, I'm poor and demented and I don't want my kid to have OCD, panic attacks, and acute bouts of violent, narcissistic rage. Oh, you're leaving? Don't mind the baseball bat. Please. Well, if you gotta go. You have a nice day!
While traveling I'll eat mostly hamburgers and drink Cokes. Scribble nonsense on my pad of paper: Baseball is like the belief in a Higher Power: you either feel it in your bones or you don't. Why am I constantly going to the bathroom? Trying to catch my breath? Getting angry because some moron cut in front of me in the grocery store checkout line? I wish I could put on a uniform one more time, hit a line-drive in the gap and leg out a triple. Was I born with this balled up fist of anger in my gut? Will it ever go away? I really don't want to go to jail.
When I make it to the city, I'll bypass Times Square and the Statue of Liberty and all the people and sights and smells. Instead, I'll take the subway out to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, walk straight into the owner's suite and see Steinbrenner. He'll be sitting behind his desk, greedy blue eyes studying the Wall Street Journal. I'll take a swing at his desk with my bat, scatter papers and candy bar wrappers and stacks of thousand dollar bills everywhere. He'll piss his pants. Hopefully.
Me: Do you even like baseball?
Steinbrenner: Take it easy.
I'll raise the bat over my head like a sword, just to feel like I'm in the movies for once. I'll look into his eyes and maybe see something I hadn't seen before. Maybe I'll see anger. Hot, burning rage. Maybe I'll realize that every successful person was once dissatisfied and that dissatisfaction bred ambition, which bred action. Anger. Rage. Winning. Maybe I'll make the connection. Yes, Big Stein is angry. He wants to win. He wants to be remembered. Like me, he doesn't want to go gently into that goodnight. He wants to rage against the dying of the light. Yes, he'll do anything to stay around baseball, to be close to all those great players, all that sports history being made. Anger. Rage. Winning. I'll shoulder the bat, move in close, and gag on his aftershave.
Me: As a kid, more than anything, did you want to be an astronaut?
Me: A movie star?
Me: President of the United States? A cowboy?
Steinbrenner: No. No.
Me: Right now, if you could do anything, anything imaginable, what would it be?
Pause. Blue eyes welling up with tears.
Steinbrenner: Play for the New York Yankees...
I'll drop the bat and put my hands back in pockets where they belong.
Me Again: Mr. Steinbrenner, can I borrow fifty bucks for bus fare back home?
©2008 by Max Everhart